The power of connection and empathy at work

Let’s talk empathy at work

At work, empathy can be a powerful connection. A connection through people, not technology, of course. Yes, you can connect with people through technology, just turn your wifi on, however, this is not going to build up emotional intelligence. To do that you need to be stronger. You need to resist that primitive hard-wired urge to run away from emotional pain and seek growth in our evolved potential for community connection.

When I think of empathy I always think first about Brene Brown. She has honestly changed the world with her research on empathy, shame and vulnerability. Check out her TED video here.

Check out this cool RSA video illustration of Brene explaining the power of empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is a skill or ability that can be developed through practice. Being empathetic allows you to sense the emotions of another person or persons. Empathetic people can use their skill to imagine the thoughts, feelings or behaviors of another as if they were trying on a sweater at the GAP.

What empathy is definitely not, is sympathy. Many people confuse these two so this is a really good take away if you only read this far.

Sympathy supports disconnection. It puts way too much space between you and the other person, which in some cases is just fine, and in others, not so good. For example, it’s 5pm and a team member is drowning in work due the next day and you throw them a sympathetic, “Oh! You look swamped. Too bad. Well, got to run”. What do you think is happening at that point to the connection between you and your teammate?

Empathy, on the other hand, supercharges connection. If we took the above example an alternate ending could have been something like you replying, “I don’t know what to say but thank you for telling me that. It must be heavy to deal with. I have 5 minutes to spare, tell me more.”

By the way, if any of you do respond like the latter to your colleagues, bravo! I had to learn the difference between sympathy and empathy at work a long time ago. Things get confusing when you enter into the corporate dog-eat-dog world and it takes some time to carve out your own path forward.

What is happening during an empathetic connection is that the individual who is having a hard time is able to share that with you. Imagine the hard time is like a heavy briefcase full of bricks that is weighing the person down. By being present with them, empathizing with them, you are metaphorically removing the heavy baggage from their burden and lightening their load.

Note I said metaphorically. No one is suggesting that you have to miss your evening plans and self-sacrifice yourself to do all your colleagues work for them. Not at all. The practice is all around opening yourself up to be vulnerable and connect with that person so they can feel supported. The goal at work would be aligned with developing high-quality connections.

After receiving empathy we can truly appreciate how awesome it feels to be listened  to without judgement. We can also appreciate the bravery it takes to be that vulnerable and subtly to call out for an empathetic support to begin with.

What does empathy look like in the office?

When you sense that authentic connection that informs you that the other person is actively listening and looking back into your eyes, that’s empathy to me. At work, this could happen with a colleague or someone who works for me or even someone I work for. It could happen in a boardroom, in an elevator or at a lunch table. It could also be with a stakeholder, a vendor representative or even a service provider like the very sweet lady who makes those incredible lattes in the lobby cafe. The point is, connection can be made with anyone, anywhere so long as you are blessed with emotional consciousness and a pulse.

When I look into the eyes of another person at work I understand that there is more behind the projection in a power suit. I know there is someone who has their own story. Someone who has their own unique, perspective, needs and wants. An individual with different experiences, values, strengths and weaknesses. Still, with all these differences, I see them as human and not just as a machine. And we human beings are meant to connect with one another. It is the very purpose behind our brain’s biological evolution.

Why do we connect?

Now, to be crystal clear, when I am in a work setting I am not staring into the eyes of someone in order to stare them down and intimidate them. Nor am I gazing into their eyes to flirt with them. Well, maybe just that one time. Kidding! What I am doing is looking for a level deeper, a portal into the window to their soul to connect and communicate, “hello, I see you, I hear you, I am here, authentically, to be with you.” Basically, I am signaling that our connection has been made successful and is secure.

Once I am connected with the other person, the magic can begin. Especially the magic of being empathetic. There is no way in hell that you will be able to tap into empathy without first having a connection. That would be like trying to unlock your front door without a key. For all of you who have development plans to train for emotional intelligence and/or empathy without practicing connections first, please heed this warning.

For those taking the Free 10 week resilience training and have received your first week’s video lesson you will recall that high-quality connections and relationships build resilience. They are a significant predictor to decreasing negative distractions by questioning thoughts, especially in women. This is because connecting to someone else who has you positive regard in mind will assist to neutralize worries that may spiral into rumination and disengage you from your work.

Plus, high-quality connections predict happiness at work and happiness creates success. What more would you want from training for empathy…

The cool benefits of empathy?

One of my favorite organizations, The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), out at the University of  California, Berkeley, have been busy bees in the positive psychology movement. They have been  gathering all kinds of scientific evidence to practicing positive interventions, specifically studies around empathy (one of their seven core themes).

From the GGSC’s findings, we can see that individuals who practice empathy show:

  • to have more sex (you have to give some to get some)
  • an increase in pro-social behavior
  • reduction of inequality, prejudice, racism and bullying. (FYI: none of which are acceptable office behavior)
  • promotion of heroic acts.

From my own research I have seen studies to show that using empathy to help others can:

  • make you feel good
  • increase your Emotional Intelligence
  • make you more desirable for future leadership and management role

Practices to train to build an empathetic capability

Make sure to watch our Tips & Tricks video above  on How to connect with empathy at work? and get ready to start practicing in the office.

To compliment our video we also have some additional practices to share from the research world. Thankfully, a really forward-thinking nursing scholar named Theresa Wiseman used her research superpower to discover certain practices that associated to empathy.

Here they are:

  1. Taking another’s perspective and putting yours aside temporarily
  2. Being non-judgmental towards another and their situation. (NO I told you so!)
  3. Allow your feelings to be part of the connection so you can sense another’s feelings
  4. Communicate back to the other person your understanding of their feelings.

By encouraging and training with these practices at work, in your own unique way, you too can develop your ability for empathy. It may take a little time to get used to it however once you do it will feel very emotionally empowering.

If you still haven’t figured it out yet, yes, emotional connections are all about feelings. That horrible F-word that the corporate world doesn’t like to talk about much. Have no fear, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With training comes increased skill, even when learning empathy. It’s all about repetition, repetition, repetition and practicing for progress, not perfection!

Fun and simple practice for emotionally connecting with people at work

For those of you who want to practice connecting more, I offer you this wonderful practice based upon the very cool social  experiment by psychologist, Arthur Aron.

Find someone brave at work who also wants to practice connecting with others. Or be a pioneer and start this practice as part of your team’s development goals. However you choose, here is what to do.

With a partner, starts into their eyes for just 2 minutes without talking. Allow all your communication to flow through your eyes.

Yes, that is it. A simple and powerful exercise just the way I like it. I hope you try it and tell us all about it. 2 minutes is actually half the experiment time so this is a baby step in your training. Feel free to go up to 4 minutes if you are ready for the experience.

Here is a unique video that demonstrates the experiment and participants first hand. If you really want to practice empathy allow yourself to “feel” while you watch this video.

It’s not business, it’s personal

For so long many of us have lived by a saying, “it’s not personal, it’s business”. The saying is so antiquated now that you wouldn’t even see it on a Facebook mime post. Everything that involves human beings is personal and personal does not mean that it’s bad. If you have an opportunity to be empathetic to someone at work, take it. Be there for them just by connecting. You don’t need to offer a solution. You don’t need to give them money or give up your job for them. Just be there, with them. ‘Cause you never know when you may need someone to be there with you.

Enough about me. What do you think of me and my perspectives? Lol.😉Please, let me know your feedback or questions by using the comments on our social media channel of your choice. 

Much love, light and self regulation.


Always be Self Regulating